Retrospectively, many critics, even those not well disposed toward some of Herman Wouk’s later writings, considered The Caine Mutiny his best work and one of the finest war novels to emerge from World War II. Wouk was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for it in 1952. Certainly the reading public affirmed this decision, for it became one of the best-selling novels published in the twentieth century. By 1960, sales in the United States exceeded three million copies and the novel had been translated into sixteen languages. In addition, adapted for theater, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial became a hit play, and, buoyed by actor Humphrey Bogart’s superb performance as Captain Queeg, the screen version of The Caine Mutiny earned multiple awards that presaged recognition of it as a film classic.
Although Wouk served several years in the Pacific during World War II as an officer aboard a minesweeper much like the Caine, his novel is not autobiographical. The Caine Mutiny certainly reflects elements of Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897) and of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924) in the sense that both of these major literary works are stories of seamen trapped by implacable nature and unbending authority, of mutinies, and of trials. These similarities ought not, however, to obscure The Caine Mutiny’s differences from them.
Philosophically, Wouk’s themes are conservative and moralistic. The moral lesson he emphasizes by following spoiled Willie Keith through his rite of passage to genuine maturity is that Keith’s maturation has demanded sacrifice. Part of that sacrifice entails the acceptance of an almost unquestioning obedience to properly constituted authority, along with the assumption of responsibility for making decisions. Wouk stresses how Keith, Maryk, even Keefer in his own manner, and not the least Greenwald, eventually realize, first by observation and...
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